26 February 2012

COOL BOOK: When Relativity Becomes Fiction

I am someone who reads book out of time.  That is, I rarely read something when or near to when it was actually published.  Even one of my favorite tomes, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, I mostly happened on and then only because I'd recently read another of her works, the profoundly thoughtful and vivid The Left Hand of Darkness.

Annares Globe

So I'll find something I like and think I've discovered something new - only to find it isn't.  So it is a delicious irony that the book I came across some time ago is a book about time and relativity.  And how just now, when doing a little research on it for this post, I find that not only have others loved it as I have, they have loved it so much to want to make it real - and have made it into something that can be seen on stage. (Shaun Tan's absolutely perfect book The Arrival has had a similar effect.) 

The book is Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams (1992; ISBN: 0446670111). Here's the summary of the book posted on Wikipedia: 
"The novel fictionalizes Albert Einstein as a young scientist who is troubled by dreams as he works on his theory of relativity in 1905. The book consists of 30 chapters, each exploring one dream about time that Einstein had during this period. The framework of the book consists of a prelude, three interludes, and an epilogue. Einstein's friend, Michele Besso, appears in these sections. Each dream involves a conception of time. Some scenarios may involve exaggerations of true phenomena related to relativity, and some may be entirely fantastical. The book demonstrates the relationship each human being has to time, and thus spiritually affirms Einstein's theory of relativity."
It is an accurate description of the stories but comes nowhere near capturing Lightman's delicate whimsy, rich and fantastical visuals, and conversely soothing prose mixed with deeply provocative human emotions.  It is true science fiction wherein one of the most important scientific theories is presented not as a PBS special -- i.e., Brian Greene's gorgeous yet incredibly complex go at explaining string theory in The Elegant Universe -- but as a series of simply told, strikingly vivid single incidents in human lives. 

High Street Berne, Switzerland, 1890

Framed by brief vignettes of Einstein conversing with a friend, each tale in the collection is comprised of a unique take on time and relativity.  In one, for instance, people live for just one day, but that day may be an eternity.  In another time is a local phenomenon where clocks, separated by distance tick, at different rates.  In yet another time exists as three dimensions, and each decision or act has three possible outcomes.  The tales, each only a few pages long, have a sense of being quite ephemeral while simultaneously affecting one as something quite tangible and truly experienced by real human hearts. Here are two excerpts.
16 April 1905
"She huddles in a corner, then quickly creeps across the street and cowers in another darkened spot, at no. 22. She is terrified that she will kick up dust, just as a Peter Klausen is making his way to the apothecary at Spitalgasse this afternoon of 16 April 1905."
19 April 1905
"It is a cold morning in November and the first snow has fallen. A man in a long leather coat stands on his fourth-floor balcony on Kramgasse overlooking the Zähringer Fountain and the white street below. To the east, he can see the fragile steeple of St. Vincent's Cathedral, to the west, the curved roof of the Zytgloggeturm. But the man is not looking east or west. He is staring down at a tiny red hat left in the snow below, and he is thinking. Should he go to the woman's house in Fribourg? His hands grip the metal balustrade, let go, grip again. Should he visit her? Should he visit her?"
I find reading most poetry difficult; I cannot hear meter somehow so I miss so much of the musical emotion and cadence of the poet's mind.  Lightman's prose is to me a poetry I can both hear and see. When I read it I find the stories affect me physically; I can feel the tales on my skin.  Perhaps this is my synesthesia; if so, it's a rather unique version of it!  Rather, I think it is the Deep Imagination -- Jung's collective unconscious -- that I am running into.

Gases in the Omega/Swan Nebula
(Hubble Telescope)
Image source
I am not the only one so moved.  There have been a number of theatrical interpretations of the book.  Here are are images from two rather contrasting productions.
Katrina Stevenson and Nic Carter in Jobsite's Einstein's Dreams.  (Photo by Brian Smallheer) Image source 
(Clockwise from top)  Jessy Quinones, Greg Milton, Nicole Jeannine Smith, Tia Jemison and Katie Castonguay in Jobsite's Einstein's Dreams. (Photo by Brian Smallheer) Image source

 L-R: Debra Wise, Robert Najarian, 
and Steven Barkhimer in Einstein's Dreams
Photo by Arthur Ferguson
Image source

Steven Barkhimer, Robert Najarian, 
and Debra Wise try a new perspective.  
Photo by Elizabeth Stewart 
Image source

18 February 2012

Packages for an Imagined Event: Item 10

Although I must confess that I am not much of a Harry Potter fan (either the books or the movies), there are aspects of them I find both charming and entertaining.  As a long time mail artist, I find the Owl Post concept pretty cool.  And one special aspect of it I borrowed for some of the "perfect packages" I made for the 2011 Summer Wizarding Event: how Harry's letters were addressed in Book 1 as Hogwarts tried to deliver his letter of acceptance. No  matter where he was, the envelope was very specific.

Mr. H. Potter
The Cupboard Under the Stairs
4 Privet Drive
Little Whinging

Mr. H. Potter
The Smallest Bedroom
4 Privet Drive
Little Whinging

Mr. H. Potter
Room 17
Railview Hotel

Mr. H. Potter
The Floor
The Sea

A week prior to the event, the 19 children received their Official Letters of Invitation. Our crew planners had been in contact with their parents and knew generally where they would be on their respective delivery days: generally but not exactly. 

Each of the letters - parchment paper in heavy envelopes - were hand addressed in ink. The couriers, dressed oddly as wizards might who were trying unsuccessfully to blend in to the nonmagical world, brought ink pens with with them. When they arrived where the child was, they stood away at a little distance first to note precisely where the child was located.  Then they wrote that down on the envelope in the space left for it.  My favorite was the the location info for a child attending the local farmer's market with her family that read "City Farmer's Market. East Side Stalls. Next to her older sister, slightly to her right."  I borrowed the idea.

Package 10 was a smallish one, about 4x4x3 inches. Its address was brief: the student's name, the initials of our wizarding school, and the words "She's in the lunchroom."  (I would have liked to have been more specific - stating exactly where in the lunchroom - but no one had any idea where the kids would seat themselves during the lunch break.)

The contents of this package, as with many others, began with the box.  In this case, the box was a small, faux velvet covered, green jewelry box.  It had a proper heft to it and a very efficient and strong magnetic clasp.  I especially like the "gold" metal decoration at each corner. I removed the spacers from the box's interior and lined the bottom with a piece of embossed, purple faux leather.

Because it was so compact, I had some trouble finding items that were small enough to fit inside.  I found something eventually but am still not quite sure what it is!

It was a metal case of some kind with two rounded compartments.  I am guessing it might be a ring box, or perhaps for postage stamp storage. (If anyone reading this knows, please post a comment below!)

I found a small lock to go in one compartment and its matching keys (which was contained in a small white packet used for wedding rings) went in the other.

The letter was short, written with a dip pen using red ink on heavy rag paper.  I knotched the top and bottom edges of the paper with one of my craft scissors.

Unfortunately, I forgot to photograph the back of it!  But here is what I have . . .

Summer 2011

Dear L---!

Welcome to your first year at N------! My name is the same as yours -- only spelled with two "e"s.  Maybe that's why I got your name <--- every year past or current N------ students write to welcome in the new class.

I am also sending you a few useful items.  The lock is a Muggle lock -- hard to open unless you have the Muggle key!  Useful if you need to keep something secret.  The gold box is one I used in Professor W-------'s Potions Class to sort out ingredients that were likely --->

The mystery of what else was said must remain so.  But the wizardling girlchild's curiosity and delight were, fortunately, caught by one of our roving camera folk.


Slightly unrelated, but similarly fun:  This Christmas I gave one of my nephews the first Harry Potter book.  Three weeks later his mother tells me he is already up to Book 5!  He and his brother and I have regular "playdates" - learning about old timey portable typewriters, making "chalkboard planets" and, soon, creating a life size board game where the two of them are the game pieces!  

We three like to play with mail too.  This past weekend I and one of our Event Day crew passed by their house.  She hopped out of the car and placed two packages (containing books and sketchpads) inside their front storm door. They were wrapped in heavy brown paper with some sport team stickers for postage.  The cancellation stamp was our Event Day Owl Post rubber stamp.  

The address for one included the words "In the Front Door of the House."  The other noted "Maybe Upstairs in His Bedroom."

I heard from their Mom yesterday.  The packages were discovered when they came back from a trip to the library.  I am told Boy1 yelled at top volume to his brother, "IT'S OWL MAIL!!  WE GOT OWL MAIL!!!!!!"  

Yes, I love this stuff! 


The posts describing all the imaginary postal packages can be found grouped here under the tag faux package.   

10 February 2012

A Few More Encouraging Words

The spelling of the author's name (Vonnegut) is wrong, 
but the sentiment is straight on!

06 February 2012

A Box of Clocks

A very fine side co-occurrence of this past summer's Wizarding Event was that my brother, Architect, and I got to work creatively together. Our respective professions -- Architecture/Urban Planning and Information Organization/Education -- are intensely creative but in very different ways. At times this helped and at times it didn't.  But since we come from a Family of Makers, by and large it all turned out well.

Word on the street these days is that the wizarding crew is planning a new-and-improved event in 2013 -- so this year will be filled with all the fun and intensity of its planning.  And I am making 2012 the year I get my graphic novel project off the ground.  When that much creativity is at high flow, cool things happen.  Here's just one example (I will be posting about future ones as they occur!). 

One thing the event crew is cogitating upon is how to further develop the various "sets." The event venue was an early-twentieth century residence turned fraternity house.  It had lots of character, but needed decoration/design throughout to make it look more like a school of magic. One important set is the Headmaster's office.

To that end, Architect asked me to be on the lookout for unusual looking "artifacts" that might work on this set.  Clocks were one thing we focused on. (There is an old Grandfather Clock outside the door of the office.)  Over the past couple of months of bimonthly visits to local Goodwill and Salvation Army shops (while also trolling for lost typewriters!) I found some funky clocks (or stuff to make clocks)This past weekend, Architect and I rendezvoused at his house for a Grand Exchange.  Only he didn't know it was an exchange . . . more on that it a moment.

I arrived with this box of newspaper-wrapped items.

Item 1: A pretty, small porcelain Lady's Clock.  What made this one ideal was that, unlike a number of similar I'd seen, this one was completely contained: no open back that showed the modern, battery and mechanism.

Item 2: This paperboard wall clock looked a bit old, which was its draw.  It was missing it's pendulum, though.  Brother Architect is thinking of making one that has a small planet at the end of the bar rather than the more typical brass disk.

Item 3: An imprinted, copper wall clock with a design of acorns and oak leaves around its perimeter.  The house Architect and I grew up in was an 1840s, cream brick farmhouse.  In front was a massive burr oak, almost as old as the house.  So this clock was a neat one for both of us.  Also cool, is that it is just the face - which will allow for some creative re-fashioning.  It may stay as is or it may become part of a larger, fanciful steampunkish thing.

Item 4:  This is actually a metal charger, a large flat presentation platter or plate.  It was about 14 inches across.  I thought that Architect, being a man of many interests and maker abilities, would be able to do something with this.  The expression on his face when I unwrapped this told me I was right.  I shall be very interested in seeing what he comes up with for it!

Item 5: This was the most exciting find: a 15-inch tall porcelain, working clock!  That it weathered the often rough-n-tumble shelving that is Goodwill without so much as a chip was also a happy thing.  I tested it along with all the others that had mechanisms.  This one was missing its minute hand, but when plugged in and the hour hand set to match those of the others, it kept true time. 

I thought these clocks a fine trade for what I received that day - something I'd long wanted and, this year, especially so: a drawing table. A few months ago, knowing he travels in circles where such things might be found, I asked Architect to keep his eyes open for an old drafting table base.  I have the top, I said.  As it turned out, he didn't need to look any further than his own storage/workroom! 

Not only was it just what I needed, it had a very precious history.  Some thirty-plus years ago it had belonged to my Uncle Traveller, a person of great humor and many tales who has had a great influence in my life.  He saved it from a construction site and later gave it to my brother when he was doing his architecture schooling and, later, design work. Now it comes down to me at a time when I am about to set off on some design and storytelling adventures of my own.

I brought it home with me and, once I finish creating the Painting Ladder Bookshelves I've been working on in the basement, I'll be installing it in my own workroom. Well worth a box of clocks I'd say.

02 February 2012

The Slippery Slope of the Typosphere

Jazzed up pic of a Royal Crescent

Back before the Xmas holiday, I had a too quick call with my West coast brother, Woodcrafter.  I told him I would call him Christmas weekend . . . and then didn't.  To "retrieve myself in his eyes" I have written him a nice, long, creative letter.  In that letter I have asked him if he would like a typewriter of his very own! I am  hoping to both entertain him and possibly ensnare him in the awesomeness that is The Typosphere.

Now tell me true, would you not be utterly enchanted by such an offer and think that writing letters on it would be the most awesome of awesomeness?

Letter writing is cool. I've been a letter writer since age 10.  I try to get at least one letter out a week, more when there is time. And as often as I can I use one of my wee-tiny-kleiner portable typewriting machines.  (A showing of these can be found here and here.)
But I also live in a wee-tiny-kleiner flat (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Google Earth loves us!

It was built in 1914 when, as far as I can tell, people were about 2 feet tall and needed only one closet for all the clothing and shoes owned by a family of thirty-seven.  I.e., the space to store/display typewriters simply isn't.  So in these past few months I've been trying to whittle away at my collection - really I have - no really - please believe me. But trying, as any true blue Typospherian knows, is simply desire by another name. 

I did manage to offload three machines: one to nephew Driver; one, as just noted, possibly going out to brother Woodcrafter; and one, never really mine, sent back to Ace Pen Friend, Deek. And a fourth one, which was never working from the start (I bought it in the heat of typerobsession and I didn't note the several, serious mechanical issues.), is now designated as a Donor Machine.

And then, as reported only recently, four more found their way into our humble abode. And only a week or so ago, another lost machine's soul called out and I could not harden my heart nor deafen my ear.

It's a Remington Travel-Riter -- my first Remi -- and, great gods and little fishies, it's certainly seen better days!  And better locales too, I'll bet.  

Its case is beat up and covered with an entertaining collection of rock-n-roll stickers. (The belt is mine - the case clasp is a bit hinky.) 

The ribbon spool covers are missing - though the ribbon itself is present.  And some of the keys are showing that white powdering that old plastic keys start can manifest after years of being stashed away in less than ideal conditions.

When I see old machinery out of order, I start to channel my inner Scotty.

No, not that one . . . this one!

Chief Engineer Mr. Scott working on his "poor bairns."

Unfortunately, I lack Scotty's superhuman engineering abilities.  The best I can do is channel my late brother, The Captain, whose approach in such situations was "to look closely to try and see what seems wrong." Right now it's pretty obvious I need a new ribbon - but until I get that I can't do much more than I did at the Goodwill: try all the keys and other movement mechanisms.  All seems in order there. (And my thanks to Tom Furrier of Cambridge Typewriter for the the quick response on my ribbon and spool cover request!)  The feed rollers seem to have flattened out, which will take some work to repair.

But once that's done and I've re-spooled the new ribbon, I am looking forward to writing my first letter on it.  From what I could tell, the action on the keys combines the quick, snappy style I love with the comfortable solidity of my Dad's old Monster Underwood desktop model. (He used it in college, as did I.)

As I was taking the pics just now I was struck how similar to a laptop computer these smaller machines are.  In their day, that's just what they were: the redesigned, mini/portable versions of their desktop siblings. For some reason, the craftsmanship of this Remington seems like something Steve Jobs and his ilk would approve of.

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